Mahatma’s Murder: The Debate That Secularists Wish To Avoid

Why is India’s secularist establishment most unwilling to discuss the brutal assassination of its most valued icon—Mahatma Gandhi? Every time the subject crops up it showers choicest abuses on his assassin, Nathuram Godse (insane, fanatic, Hindu terrorist, first terrorist of independent India etc.) and seeks to close the debate. Such a tactic enables it to occupy a high moral ground and, equally important, avoid facing some inconvenient facts. Not surprisingly, the most voluble champions of freedom of thought and expression are most complicit in this exercise in thought control or censorship.

Remarkably, this censorship is willingly accepted by governments which are expected to be more liberal (in the true, undefiled sense of the word) in this matter. We thus learn that earlier this month, two days after the Akhil Bhartiya Hindu Mahasabha opened a library at its Gwalior office, district authorities shut it down and seized its material over law and order concerns following circulation of several complaints and critical messages on social media against the Godse Gyanshala.

One does not have to admire Godse or endorse his inhuman act to assert that this taboo on debating one of the most significant events after independence needs to go.

In 1905, Viceroy Lord Curzon partitioned Bengal. It led to angry protests across the country and a sustained swadeshi movement leading to the annulment of partition in 1911. About four decades later, the whole country was partitioned on communal lines and the Hindu leadership, represented by the Congress, accepted it as the best option in the given circumstances. What explains this sea change in the response of the same people to a similar event on a much larger scale with massive consequences? Any quest for an answer would involve a discussion about the nature of the freedom struggle and Gandhiji’s leadership. That is the debate that secularists want to avoid at any cost, because they know where it will lead to.

Ever since the BJP’s ascension to power at centre, attempts have been made to eulogise Godse as a sterling patriot who committed an outrageously bold act in national interest. Hindu nationalists are understandably eager to present an alternative perspective to the momentous event whose consequences haunt them till date. True to style, the Hindu Mahasabha is in the forefront of such attempts.

For decades, we have seen the visceral hatred heaped by the secularist establishment on Godse and, by association, on all Hindu nationalists. “Mukh mein Ram, bagal mein Nathuram,” Congressmen chanted during the Ayodhya days, pretending as if the slogan had clinched the issue. About five years back, in the debate on the Ayodhya issue in the winter session of the Parliament, Godse’s name was struck off the records for being ‘unparliamentary’. He has been placed in the august company of Hitler, Mussolini, Idi Amin and Ravan whose names cannot be mentioned in the hallowed precincts of the temple of democracy. Lenin, Stalin and Mao, of course, face no such bar.

The Congress version of Gandhiji’s assassination is deeply ingrained in the public psyche. It is a myth, according to it, that Gandhiji was pro-Muslim. He accommodated not only Muslims but all strands of political expression in the hope that eventually they will all be subsumed in a broad-based national identity. It was not capitulation, but far sightedness of a national leader, affectionate indulgence of a father figure. It is wrong, we are told, to blame Gandhiji for Partition. He opposed it till the very end. On the contrary, Hindu leaders like V D Savarkar, Dr. K B Hedgewar and M S Golwalkar provided Muslim League with ample material to work up Muslims.

This version of Gandhiji’s assassination, put out by Congress-Left-secularist combine, still dominates the public debate and textbooks. It blames Godse’s violent act on frustrations of narrow-minded Hindu activists who neither shared Gandhiji’s all-inclusive liberal concept of Indian nationalism nor could prevent his ascent to the top in political life during the freedom struggle.

Several decades after the event, the chinks in the secularists’ armour are glaringly visible. If Gandhian thinking represented the national consensus among masses, why was the country partitioned? Muslims as a group chose not to follow Gandhiji when it mattered most. Even among the Hindus, the reaction to Gandhiji’s assassination was NOT universal condemnation. In fact, a lot of Hindus agreed with Godse at that time and were emotionally with him. As proof, we have the famous oft-quoted testimony of none other than the judge who heard his appeal and sentenced him.

“Godse ended his peroration on a high note of emotion, reciting verses from Bhagavad Gita. The audience was visibly and audibly moved. There was a deep silence when he ceased speaking. Many women were in tears and men coughing and searching for their handkerchiefs…I have, however, no doubt that had the audience of that day been converted into a jury and entrusted with the task of deciding on Godse’s appeal, they would have brought the verdict of not guilty with an overwhelming majority,” wrote Justice G D Khosla, member of the three-judge bench of the Punjab High Court that confirmed death sentences for Godse and Narayan Apte, in his book “Murder of the Mahatma and Other Cases”.

Godse’s deposition before the court was in fact a political charge sheet against Gandhiji whom he accused of consistently sacrificing national interests to appease Muslims. The climax came with Gandhiji’s fast to force payment of Rs. 55 crore and Hindu refugees being driven out of abandoned mosques in Delhi’s winter.

Long before Gandhiji entered India’s political scene, the British rulers had laid a trap. Faced with the rising tide of national resurgence, they started saying that while they appreciated the legitimate aspirations of ‘the majority community’ they could not leave the ‘minority community’ at the mercy of the former. The minority on its part started protesting that institutions of parliamentary democracy were not suited to the peculiar conditions of a country divided into rival communities and that the Muslims could not view with equanimity the prospect of the British leaving the country till the majority community had succeeded in winning the trust of the minority. As can be expected with hindsight, the price of the ‘trust’ went on increasing in direct proportion to the effort mounted to secure it. 

The details need not detain us. As Arun Shourie has observed perceptively, at each stage the national leaders thought that the onus of finding a solution that would satisfy Jinnah was on them and since the previous concession had not satisfied him the new one must bend more his way. It was a blind alley from which there was no escape.

Gandhiji made the situation worse. He converted a political compulsion into a moral obligation. Communal amity became an article of faith for him, to be pursued independently of cost-benefit analysis. The more it eluded him, the more doggedly he chased it.

He met with a comprehensive failure. Muslim League leaders concluded that their advantage lay in remaining cross with ‘Hindu banias’. Gandhiji’s attitude to and treatment of the communal problem embittered Hindu nationalists no end and led many of them to keep away from the freedom struggle. In the post-independence period, this idea of communal amity at any cost (to the Hindus, of course) reincarnated in the Nehruvian secularism and led to political emasculation of Hindus in spite of their majority. Indian nationalism came to be reviled as majoritarianism and Hindu communalism. For this Gandhiji is heartily despised by Hindu intellectuals.

Voices of warning were not missing. Many leaders of impeccable credentials had expressed doubts about the wisdom and efficacy of Gandhiji’s policy of winning over Muslims through appeasement, as Sita Ram Goel has documented meticulously in his “Muslim Separatism: Causes and Consequences.” (Voice of India, 1985, New Delhi.)

“I am sorry they have made a fetish of Hindu-Muslim unity. It is no use ignoring facts; someday, Hindus may have to fight Muslims and they must prepare for it. Hindu-Muslim unity should not mean subjection of Hindus. Every time, the mildness of the Hindu has given way. The best solution would be to allow Hindus to organize themselves and Hindu Muslim unity would take care of itself.”

Who said it? No, not Dr. Hedgewar. Sri Aurobindo said this on 18 April 1923 (Evening Talks with Sri Aurobindo recorded by A.B. Purani, Second Series, Pondicherry, 1974, p. 48).  He was more explicit a little later (13 July 1923): “You can live amicably with a religion whose principle is toleration. But how is it possible to live with a religion whose principle is ‘I will not tolerate you’?” (Ibid, p. 50)

Similar sentiments were expressed by Sarat Chandra Chatterji¹, Lala Lajpat Rai² and Ravindranath Tagore³. All these warnings fell on deaf ears. On the communal problem, Gandhiji steadfastly stuck to the beaten path throughout his career. His support for the alien and retrograde Khilafat Movement, his defence of the Moplahs who perpetrated unspeakable atrocities on Hindus in Malabar, his kindness to the murderer of Swami Shraddhanand and above all and his treatment of Jinnah and Muslim league were all motivated by an earnest quest for communal amity. But it kept eluding him.

A keen observer of men and matters like Gandhiji could not fail to see the consequences of his policy. “My own experience confirms my belief that the Hindu as a rule is a coward and the Musalman as a rule is a bully,” he wrote in Young India on 24 May 1924. That, however, did not prevent him from behaving like a bully towards the ‘coward’ and like a coward towards the ‘bully’. Like most Hindus, he did not trace Muslim gangsterism to the tenets of Islam which remained a ‘noble faith’ to him till his own life was consumed by the flames lighted by that faith.

Yet it is also a fact that despite all the rhetoric of Hindu nationalists, it was Gandhiji and not they who could stir the masses and inspire them to rise above their petty selves and make highest sacrifices. He knew that Hindus value spiritual qualities far above political fervour. He realized in his personal life all the spiritual ideals that the Hindus had cherished through centuries and they in turn poured their hearts out on him.

India’s tragedy during the freedom struggle was that those who could see the danger could not carry people with them. People chose to go with Gandhiji who refused to learn from experience.

Gandhiji’s failure to avoid partition holds important lessons for us.

One, there is a hard core at the heart of Islam which even a man of oceanic goodwill like Gandhiji could not melt. That should open our eyes to the hollowness of slogans like secularism.

Secondly, it shows that in real politics good intentions and even good behaviour is no guarantee of good results. We must understand the enemy’s mentality and put him out of the harm’s way.

Secularists are unwilling to engage in this debate because they are unwilling to accept the logic of partition: After the cessation of the Muslim component including army and bureaucracy, what remained was Hindu Rashtra. They have spent seven decades telling Hindus that this is not their country.

That brings us to the final question. Was Godse justified in Killing Gandhiji? Godse called it ‘Vadh’ (slaying, typically of a demon). But that is stretching the language and mythology too much. Neither Hindu ethos nor modern sensitivities endorse suppression of political dissent through murder. Having said that, it may also be pointed out as Koenraad Else did, that the proper target for Godse and those who share his methods was Jinnah and not Gandhiji. Anyone who killed Jinnah in the run up to the independence would have instantly become a Hindu hero, though it is impossible to predict the consequences of such an action.

That apart, killing Gandhiji was a great tactical blunder. If Gandhiji had not been killed, he and Congress leaders would have been held answerable for their failure to avoid partition; and that would not have been easy. Hindu nationalism would have occupied the centre of our polity as a logical consequence of partition.

Gandhiji’s assassination changed all that. It put Hindu nationalists in a dock from which they have not yet been able to come out. The plaintiff became the accused, and the culprits became the plaintiffs. Godse killed Gandhiji because in his estimation the latter had become a great liability for the Hindu society. But his own cruel act became an even greater liability for the cause for which he was ready to kill and die.

Godse made a tactical blunder by targeting Gandhiji. Today, Hindu Mahasabha is repeating the same blunder by seeking to glorify Godse through library, temple and statue. It betrays the same cussedness and recklessness as the act that it seeks to glorify. Presenting an alternative view point is one thing, elevating an assassin to the status of a god is an altogether different thing. Such an action can only revive the martyr’s halo around Gandhiji at a time when India has already dumped him into dying institutions and meaningless ceremonies. It can only lower Hindu nationalists in the eyes of their countrymen and Hinduism in the eyes of the world.

Today, jihadi zealots and suicide bombers are educating the civilized world about what Islam has in store for non-Muslims and the kind of life it offers to the believers. The reservations expressed by Hindu leaders in last century about Islam and Gandhian methods are surfacing in the minds of independent observers all over the world. The West is asking itself how long and how much it should bend to accommodate Islamic diktats. Godse believed that honest writers of History would judge him more favourably. His supporters should await the verdict of history, and not presume to write it.


  1. “Hindustan is the land of the Hindus. It is, therefore, the duty of the Hindus alone to liberate it from the shackles of foreign domination. Muslims are sitting with their faces turned towards Arabia or Turkey. Their heart is not in the land of Hindustan. But when it is not there, it is no use lamenting over it. We need not be unnerved by counting the heads of Muslims. Numbers are not the supreme truth in the world. In freedom’s battle in any country, do all the people of that country take part? When the Americans fought for their freedom, more than half the people of that country were with the British. In the Irish freedom struggle, how many were actually involved in it? Right or wrong is not decided by the counting of heads. It is decided by the intensity of tapasya or the single-minded devotion to the cause. The problem before the Hindus is not to devise ways and means of bringing about an artificial unity. The problem before them in how to organise themselves.” Quoted in The Tragic Story of Partition by H V Shesadri p. 252.
  2. Lalaji wrote as follows in a confidential letter to Deshbandhu C.R. Das: “I have devoted most of my time during the last six months to the study of Muslim history and Muslim Law and I am inclined to think that Hindu-Muslim unity is neither possible nor practicable. Assuming and admitting the sincerity of the Mohammedan leaders in the Non-Cooperation Movement, I think their religion provides an effective bar to anything of the kind. There is no finer Mohammedan than Hakim [Ajmal Khan] Sahab, but can any Muslim leader override the Koran? I can only hope that my reading of the Islamic Law is incorrect and nothing would relieve me more than to be convinced that it is so. I do honestly and sincerely believe in the necessity and desirability of Hindu-Muslim unity. I am also fully prepared to trust the Muslim leaders, but what about the injunctions of the Koran and the Hadis? The leaders cannot override them”. Quoted by A. Ghosh in Making of the Muslim Psyche in Devendra Swarup (ed.), Politics of Conversion, New Delhi, 1986, p. 147.
  3. “Another very important fact which according to the poet was making it almost impossible for Hindu-Mohammedan unity to become an accomplished fact was that the Mohammedans could not confine their patriotism to any one country. The poet said that he had very frankly asked many Mohammedans whether, in the event of any Mohammedan power invading India, they would stand side by side with their Hindu neighbours to defend their common land. He could not be satisfied with the reply he got from them. He said that he could definitely state that even men like Mr. Mohammed Ali had declared that under no circumstances was it permissible for any Mohammedan, whatever his country might be, to stand against any other Mohammedan.” Rabindranath Tagore in an interview to The Times of India published on April 18, 1924. Ibid p. 148.



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